Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button. Stop hustling and you sank without a trace, but move a little too swiftly and you'd break the fragile surface tension of the black market; either way, you were gone, with nothing left of you but some vague memory in the mind of a fixture like Ratz, though heart of lungs or kidneys might survive in the service of some stranger with New Yen for the clinic tanks.
As I sat losing money to professional chess hustlers on market street here in San Francisco, I wondered how many times these guys did this a day. I got so curious I asked my opponent.
"Oh it depends," the old man said with a warm indifference. He wasn't waiting around for some college-looking kid to tell his life story to. The less said the better, but not in a mean way.
I knew I wasn't going to get any indication of how he got to that table, so I thought about how I had wound up there. The primary reason was that the game was only for a dollar. At that price most passers-by could afford to sit around for a few minutes and get hustled. A dollar for a good chess game seems like a pretty fair price to me.
After I lost a couple games I stood around watching the way things went there. Some pacific-islander looking guy, ratty and ancient, who may or may not even know how to play chess spends his days setting up and maintaining the chess boards. He sets up each side and waits for someone to come along. Each game costs fifty cents for the use of the board. Not every single game, just the ones where you kick someone off a board to play. As it is, the fifty cents to use the board is more of an act of kindness. The guy who sets up the boards looked very unlikely to chase you down the street demanding two quarters for any reason.
The hustlers aren't really hustlers at all in the classic sense. They aren't doing anything wrong or manipulative, they're just offering a service, they'll beat you at chess if you give them a dollar. Some people are good enough to beat them once in awhile, but those are the citizens who ask the regulars for a game, and not the other way around.
Standing around watching game after game, regulars playing against regulars, regulars playing with people who think they're good enough to take on a professional, timed games, hour-long games, I wondered why every game was for the tiny sum of one USAmerican dollar. Here's what I realized:
A dollar isn't worth getting in a fight over. If you get cheated or someone doesn't pay up, you're not losing more than a few minutes of your day. Also, this is rare because who really wants to get in a fight over a dollar?
If you live on the street and know a lot about chess you'll make more money in the course of a day sitting around playing chess than you would panhandling and being told to get a job.
Not many people would play in a high stakes game. It's much harder to get a game from the average citizen when you ask them to play for $5 than for $1.
Observing all the intricacies of this system I noticed that it was essentially perfectly sustainable. Day after day people made a living by playing a fair game of skill with people who don't mind losing a dollar or two. It had all the benefits of a capitalistic economy and all the benefits of a sustainable way of life. No one gets angry, a few people make enough money for food and whatever else they need, and everything stays balanced. It could go on that way forever provided there are enough passersby with real jobs who are interested in learning a thing or two.
I've been reading a lot of books by Daniel Quinn lately and taken some interest in his company New Tribal Ventures. For anyone interested in a unique view of how humanity came to be where it is I definitely recommend his Ishmael trilogy (Ishmael, The Story of B, and My Ishmael). A main element of these books is getting people to look at sustainability as a more favorable option than constantly heading towards some unknown goal at the cost of sustainability. Thinking about this really helped me realize the beauty in homelessness, hustling, urban wandering and street performing.
Over the past couple months I've come to not look down on people who make their living on the street. When you see the result of imbalances in economic systems it gets harder to be a part of it. When you see families who want nothing to do with the street living there because someone else has their piece of the pie, it gets harder to take.
Not only do I no longer look down on some of these people, I downright admire a lot of them. I've met someone who makes a living playing chess who takes advantage of a group called Food Not bombs and gets free vegetarian dinners from them (collected from leftovers at restaurants around the city) and reads some amazing poetry at local clubs. He's happy.
The rules mentioned in the William Gibson quote at the top of this writeup apply not only to most forms of hustling, but to sustainability in general. Slow down and you die. Speed up and you mess up the balance. Rock the boat too much and your fellow citizens will see to it that you sit down, not because they're jealous or mean or want what you have, but rather they want what they have; sustainability. Living in the USA it's easy to take and take and take from other parts of the world, you don't have to see the impact of your actions, it's easy to pretend that your impact is negligible, despite all the evidence to the contrary. In a micrososm like the chess games on Market Street it's easy to see how much impact you'd have if you tried to speed up, make more, move forward. When ten people are chasing ten dollars everyone gets along. When one of those ten people wants five of those ten dollars there will be at least 4 people who have a problem with the guy who wants more. This isn't to say that people who suffer the imbalances of the world on a global scale don't have problems with those who want more, but in a small setting like those chess games you're looking the participants right in the eye when you take from them and they'll be looking right back at you when they ask you what you think you're doing.
This exists in other microcosms we look down on as a culture here in the USA, for example, Drugs dealers. Try here for an example of the differences between "good" and "bad" drug dealers. I live on Haight and Fillmore here in San Francisco and I see hustlers of all kinds selling all the basics and not hurting a soul who isn't going out of their way to get hurt. Besides the legal forces in place to stop any hustler who tries to get too powerful, there are the other forces mentioned above; and every time, without fail someone who tries to capture territory beyond their own established places gets put back in their place. Is it a coincidence that this territoriality mimics that of tribal cultures to whom territory and it's sustainence are the only two things more important than family?
What I'm getting at here is just another meme, but here it is: Do we look down on these cultures FOR their sustainability?
From what I've seen of the world these sustainable cultures are full of happy struggling people. Skyscrapers are full of sad struggling people who accuse the folks on the street of having no dreams, of not sharing the same vision.
Which side are you on? If you look down on homeless folks and drug dealers can you honestly say that your explanation for doing so is not just rhetoric lacking in empathy and understanding? Why is there so much animosity towards street folks who aren't even violent or insane?
I don't want to die sad.